The Puzzling Popularity of Languages

by Santiago Montero

Across the English-speaking world, the popularity of grassroots language learning is soaring at the same time that the amount of people who are choosing to study foreign languages in traditional academic settings has fallen to record lows. The media frequently reports that native English speakers struggle when it comes to learning foreign languages, but has the time for a language learning renaissance finally arrived?

Americans are among the least likely in the world to know a language other than their native tongue, with only 10% able to converse in another language if you discount recent immigrants and their children.

The number of elementary schools offering modern language programmes, of qualified second language teachers and college's requiring a second language for entry are all down. With many students coming out of years of lessons at a typical high school barely able to hold a conversation in their target language, demotivation is rife and largely understandable.

Across the pond, other English speaking countries aren't faring any better. At both degree level and A-level, the number of British students taking exams in languages has dropped by 22% to its lowest level in a decade.

How has it come to this?

In education, language departments have unquestioningly had their budget cut first and cut deepest, despite mounting evidence to suggest that a lack of language skills is costing the English-only economies a fortune. This has inevitably had an affect on not only the language speaking capabilities of English-speaking countries, but also the popularity of language courses in high schools and universities.

There is a growing consensus that 'the rest of the world speaks English, so we don't have to try' attitude is not only factually incorrect, but has been costly to our economies and damaging to our international relationship. Language learning capabilities in the US peaked at the end of the '60s and collapsed in the '70s and '80s, but despite the need for languages rising sharply alongside globalization and the international competition for jobs both at home and abroad, language capabilities have yet to re-bound in the traditional academic settings.

Signs of revival

It's not all bad news. A handful of dual-language programmes, as well as a number of private language schools have had real success in the States. These have been largely fueled by excellent teachers, self-motivated learners and parents who want their children to actually learn a second language rather than just learn enough to pass the exam. But for those students who don't have the good fortune to be at an exceptional school, the chances of getting a robust education in a modern language are very slim.

You might be forgiven, if you only looked at those statistics, for assuming that learning another language is a dying art. But whilst languages are floundering in academic settings alternative methods of learning are taking off.

In 2013, Apple's iPhone app of the year was language learning title Duolingo. For context, that's an honour it shared with popular culture titans Disney Animated, Candy Crush and Minecraft. It achieved a staggering 25 million downloads by the start of 2014 and marked the first time an educational tool has ever received such popularity.

Language learning site from Fluent in 3 Months to Omniglot get millions of page views each month. Through websites such as MeetUp and Couchsurfing, informal language exchange groups are springing up across the globe, Polish students are studying Catalan in English pubs and Taiwanese business owners are getting to grips with German in Vietnamese noodle bars.

Why are alternative methods of language learning so popular?

Duolingo, italki, CouchSurfing and MeetUp all connect learners to real-world speakers, texts or tutors. For those unable to immerse themselves in their target language through travel, romance or a high-quality private schooling, these websites and applications provide an excellent alternative.

It's the essence of what has come to be known as the 'sharing economy,' where the internet enables the exchange of human skills and resources. If I am an American who wants some additional Spanish practice, then I can use MeetUp to start a language exchange with a Spaniard in my city who wants to learn English. Whilst face-to-face contact with a teacher is still essential, being able to practice with a real life speaker, not just a textbook, is a far more natural and rewarding way to reach fluency and improve vocabulary.

Where we could be...

Language learning and the internet complement one another naturally. Yet this is seldom reflected in the classroom. You might have imagined that simple exercises, such as pairing American students with Mexican students through Skype for conversation practice would be commonplace by 2014, but invariably the focus is on a written multiple choice exam rather than any conversation practice. Yes, some of these online methods promise more than they deliver, but it's undeniable that they have made people excited about learning languages again, and, in a way, that's the most important thing.

Educators should remember, that both the internet and languages are, at their most basic level, methods of communication. It's about connecting people from around the world of many different tongues. When people come into contact with one another, language learning blossoms as a natural consequence. Whilst some continue to suggest that software such as Google translate will render language learning obsolete, in reality we are still decades off a point where this kind of technology is ubiquitous and in the meantime, quite the opposite seems to be the case. In our increasingly globalised economy, a real premium is placed on those who can effectively communicate in multiple languages.

About the Author

Santiago Montero has been working on integrating the fields of education and mass media in Europe and Latin America for the last fifteen years. Santiago began teaching in the DC area in 2004, and launched Spanish Tutor DC in 2007. The main goal of the school is simply to be considered the highest-quality Spanish language programme in the Washington, D.C. area.


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